THE YEAR IS 1996
“Dear reader, I have a confession to make, a crime that has been weighing on me. I am in fact Carl Lewis. The famous African-American sprinter. No, I’m not. But I’m African-American. Well, American anyway, if by American you mean ‘doesn’t live in America and never has been to America.’ My point? Exactly. Here…take two minutes to solve this riddle. Three mice fumbled blindly in the night. One said ‘spiffy lass, please pass the protoplasmic fence before the addled mollusk of Lothar gets scrambled by the fat, bald men who dub themselves kings of all things until further notice.’ See? You are no match for me. Your tiny speck is a mind of dust and you shall serve at the foothills of my glorious prolix Canticles, betwixt an igneous bris and broken crockery. When I say betwixt, does it make you yearn for a Twix bar? LIAR! Tell it straight FOR ONCE. You idiot.”
Thus ended the first paragraph of The Last Unfinished Thing I Wrote In My Twenties. I crumpled the paper into a junk drawer. I’d been writing in that annoying, grandiose voice for half a year, spinning and trifling and folding in on myself, vaguely aware it was a kind of death rattle.
For years I’d been undulating toward fairytale goals, channeling my soul into music and writing, and despite that, the universe was not hurling money and pussy at me, per plan. So at 25, standing naked eating tuna from a can over a moldy sink, I was ready to let my aspirations die where I stood. Come, Sweet Death. Twenty-five is too old to be a starving artist loser. You tried, it’s over. You idiot.
Thoughts turned to my hairline, and whether it would last long enough to find a wife. I would need more than hair. I’d need money, stability, confidence and probably fifty other things. I’d need a less moldy sink. I followed this line of thinking for a bit. Washed the dishes. Got dressed. Did a few other things. When I looked up I was forty.
FLASHBACK TO 1989
My expository composition teacher in high school (let’s call him M.) asked the class to write a fictional piece about unrequited love. I wrote about a guy named Angus who puked explosively all over the inside of a glass elevator. I was mostly looking to use the name Angus, which I thought was amusing in itself, and with that settled, filled in the details with vomit and juvenile stupidity.
There wasn’t any of me in that piece, no metaphors or budding talent to defend, trust me. It was a blatant fuck you and an expression of boredom. It came back with an F, and a note in red ink: “Shucks, Rob, tell it straight for once.”
Tell it straight? For once?
Not “this is inappropriate” or “try harder.” No, his criticism had something to do with me not being honest. Ever.
This messed with my teenage mind. It warranted introspection: What was my Angus story lying about? How could a piece of fiction lie? Was M. saying that I wasn’t man enough to reveal my true feelings about unrequited love? Is he calling me a pussy?
Bingo. I had been called many things by teachers, but never a pussy, a coward. The next few pieces I wrote were written with one goal in mind: tell it straight, to defy M. and show him some scrotum in the form of clear, direct, earnest writing. Ha, take that, M.
I didn’t circle back to take another stab at unrequited love. I wasn’t about to become a teacher’s pet. I would retain my title as king of the underachievers, which meant: do not pay attention, do not do homework, do not try, ever, and specifically, do not read M.’s prissy bullshit reading assignment: The Sun Also Rises Or Some Shit.
I managed to write a few things that seemed to make the guy happy enough to leave me be, and even though I got a C in his class, on the last day of school, he waved me over to his desk and the conversation went like this:
“Listen. I want you to actually READ The Sun Also Rises, someday.”
OK, I thought, so this guy’s hip to the fact that I hadn’t read a damn word all year. So what? The year’s over. Alls I needed to do was just nod, say “okay,” and get outta Dodge.
Then he said: “Don’t do it for me, do it for you.”
“I will,” I said.
What else could I say? It’s like, fine, I’ll read it, bub. (No, I won’t.) I just wanted high school to be done forever. But then he says: “In ten or twenty years, I want you to look me up and drop me a line.”
Huh? I wasn’t sure what that meant, and the only adequate response seemed to be: “Yeah, right, when I’m all famous and stuff?”
He said: “Even if you’re not.”
NOW IT’S APRIL, 2012
I was a student of yours back in the late 80s. I’m now 41, so I shudder to think what that makes you.
You asked me to look you up and get in touch, someday in the far-flung future, whether famous or not. (I’m not.) You also asked me to give The Sun Also Rises a fair shake. I figured I’d make good on at least one of those requests, hence this email.
I remember you had a jubilant, unpredictable way in class. You’d scream and writhe. Anything to reach us, and you seemed to enjoy your job.
You were a treasure as a teacher, we students were lucky to have you, you were a bright spot in an otherwise drab curriculum. You represented the joy of learning, the joy of putting yourself into your job, the joy of appreciating and reveling in literature and the human experience. And, I suppose, the joy of beige suits. I don’t want to read The Sun Also Rises. I just don’t. I hope you’ll give me a pass.
THE NEXT DAY
Timing is important in life. Tuesday is what I call my day off. For the last fourteen years my wife, H., has had a type of Parkinson’s known as Multiple System Atrophy affecting her speech and mobility. I am her caregiver. Tuesday from 8 to 2 I call my own time. Having your note on Tuesday couldn’t have been a nicer gift. I am grateful. Thank you.
Life has been very good to me. Even through her illness, I still manage to try some of my shenanigans to make life better for both of us, which may find us laughing in trying to have a perfect landing on the toilet bowl. She’s 82 and I’m 80. Seldom wear a suit, but miss it and definitely miss ties.
Please don’t wait another 25 years. Hearing about your life, views, and thoughts would be very refreshing. You’ve got a pass on The Sun Also Rises for the time being.
NOW WE’RE IN 1983 (I’m 13 years old)
I’m on a bus heading for overnight camp. Many of the kids are strangers. I spot a mahogany-haired girl my age. Thin face, wide mouth, lower lip comes out slightly, just like my mother’s. She’s wearing Tom Cruise Risky Business Ray-Bans. Let’s call her J. I stare at her for hours, while I listen to my Sony Walkman. I have one tape – a mix of classical music I had grabbed in a rush from an old drawer at home in the basement. I listen to Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 5 through headphones over and over for hours while staring at J., never speaking to her. Unknowingly dosing myself with catastrophic levels of infatuation hormone and reinforcing cognitive distortion, conditioning myself in a B.F. Skinner-Clockwork-Orange way to Hungarian Dance, J. and the true-ish meaning of love, deep-rooted, poetic, noble, Oedipal destiny. The word unrequited wasn’t yet in my vocabulary.
SKIP AHEAD TO 1996
“Dear ladies and gentleman of the Jewry, I am 7’ 13’’ while standing on a 2′ 3” pile of naked bodies. Hobbies include thawing out steaks and gnawing at them, raw, sans utensils, while standing up, balls swinging in the dead fluorescent breeze. I’m a student of circumcised culture. Snippety-snip, lets the baby know who’s boss: people with the scalpels and lox run things. Lox looks like fresh swaths of removed foreskin, that’s the meaning of eating lox at Jewish brisses. Meaning is a cross between the word green and meat. The ‘ing’ is simply what green meat tends to do. If you’ve never witnessed the ‘ingness’ of green meat I can point you to several illegal websites…”
Thus ended a middle paragraph of The Last Letter Written Intended To Woo J. With Dazzling Cleverness And Humor. I crumpled the paper into a junk drawer.
I’d been trying to woo J. for-fucking-ever. She grew up in a nearby suburb, and after college, stayed in the nearest city, making it easy for me to surface every few years, take her out on awkward dates, apologize, get blown off, win second chances, blow those, and never actually get to know her even a little.
I had taken to writing letters as a last ditch effort, in that same irritating voice, again spinning and trifling and folding in on myself, again, vaguely aware it was a kind of death rattle. It didn’t dawn on me to tell it straight, about the bus ride, her mahogany hair, her lower lip, the Brahms, that lead to my ass on a piano bench where I taught myself, by ear, to play Hungarian Dance, which lead to being accepted to music school as a piano and composition major just three years later, which lead to being a musician after college, which lead to being a failed musician, which lead to trying to write some stuff and sucking.
Nor did it dawn on me to ask her about HER. About who she was or what she stood for and believed in. I was fixated on destiny, rendered psychotic by puberty and the childhood trauma of being something of a romantic prodigy andthensome before the prefrontal cortex had a chance to assume command of the vessel.
I didn’t need to know anything about J. because I already knew she was perfect for me. Only one problem: the panic of whether she would love me back, a panic that distorted my personality, my face itself, into weird positions, hoping she would somehow glimpse a cosmic, impossible calculus of sensory details, associations and lower lippage necessary to fall madly in love with me, the way I did with her.
My destiny with J. wasn’t unveiling, per plan. Like my music and writing ambitions, my interest in J. was, at long last, unrequited. You tried, it’s over. You idiot.
Next time, I’d need to fall in love with a real person. Not an uber-romantic Brahmsian apparition. I’d need to get out, loosen up and focus on basics like friendship, laughs and real intimacy. I followed this line of thinking for a bit. Went to a party. Drank a beer. Did a few things. When I looked up, I was married with three kids.
In place of Brahms, there’s bickering. Octogenarian shenanigans and perfect landings on toilet bowls sound like a definite plan, though after ten years, D. and I now only have a faint clue how to best love each other. There are piles of work to do. Her lower lip helps.
I wake and my brain is bone dry. A vague recollection that I was to be writing something amusing and purposeful for a writing class. I was supposed to be trying to tell it straight for once. I don’t remember why. It seems so pointless, writing.
I’m spending the day with my daughter. I buy her candy and watch videos on YouTube. I notice her little perfect pinky fingernail as she clicks her way through doll commercials, notice I’ve never taken the time to look at her pinky, and I try to make a mental snapshot although not sure why. That which demands awe again passes through me and it’s gone, I’m a weeping sieve.
There’s a promise of emptiness when I notice beauty. I’m still a child gazing up at the canvas of sky and feeling mainly my own smallness, sadness that I can’t soar to penetrate the mysteries and eat the colors and build castles in the cottony caverns. I can only stand, earthbound, dumbfounded and left out of something I don’t understand.
All the weeping willow trees of Earth, romantic and aching, synesthetic boughs crying and swaying in the winds, the luscious minor chords of sad love, seeing them dance, it will always be, unrequited. The universe’s poetry flat, inaccessible, unless I’m gazing with four eyes, clenched on some hilltop, bathed in oxytocin, with a sapphic blue-skinned soul mate that can’t possibly exist. Now, imprisoned by two eyes and one perspective, I need someone, anyone, to step in my mind, before I toss my cookies in this weightless, transparent box of isolation, this glass elevator through space and time, going up or down or standing still, I’ll never know.
ANOTHER TUESDAY IN JULY, 2012
Yes, timing is everything. I’m so glad to find you doing well. On second thought, I WILL read The Sun Also Rises. I’ll be in touch. – R.
1989 (I’m now 18 years old)
The Sun Also Rises is not merely the story of a man in France who loves a woman and can’t get hard. It begins for me with the story of a teenager who too often can get hard, meeting a tree that became paper that became a book with ink shapes carrying the messages of a person who summoned vast amounts of energy and luck to succeed in flinging these words before eyes of future children.
Yes, blocks of dead tree flesh, pressed and sheeted, tattooed with Hemingway’s ink shapes rendering old, weird people doing, feeling and saying grown up things, all placed in my restless, semen-stained hands, hoping I’d stay still long enough for any of it to register, like spit on a griddle, tears on the sun, a message in a bottle carrying a message in a bottle that takes a quarter century to carry its so-called wisdom.
Dear M., attached pls find my earnest analysis of The Sun Also Rises. Sorry it’s late. – R.
THE NEXT DAY
Your thinking and writing about The Sun Also Rises are enjoyable experiences for me. You say “something” and say it well—-“life….cliche, blind-sided, disconnection, denial, disillusionment….avoidance/acceptance, dignity/shame.” It’s been years since I read SAR, yet I recall much of it. The last sentence remains in my mind. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” We can think all we want, and should, but birth, life, and death continue on their pathways. Books guide. Read the best before the eyes go. There is much more to experience. Don’t let it slip by.
WAY BACK TO 1976 (I’m six)
Saturday afternoon, half asleep in the crook of my mother’s arm. Singing teenagers on the small, black & white TV want to buy the world a Coke. I don’t know why and don’t need to. I love them. I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company, sing with no need of preparation, discipline or struggle, in perfect harmony, on a beautiful hill, trees swaying in major chords, under a knowable, sharable, edible sky.
“I’m in a glass elevator of six people, I know I’m one of the people but can’t remember which, until the doors open and we get in the basement where we spend the rest of his/her/our evening stirring paste in a cobwebbed corner of the boiler room, waiting to SING to Big Francis, who’ll PROBABLY just scoff and sputter and burp his corn dog and fall asleep gambling, to wake up to the viscous strings that glob together and bind us and slowly harden as we stir them until a transparent tombstone sits crying in our laps, a brained baby trapped in a cracked prism.”
Thus ends another surrealist shard from back in the day. I have no recollection of writing it or what it’s getting at. I’d love to hear more about Big Francis but the consciousness responsible for Big Francis is gone. The glass elevator reminds me of something I wrote in high school. Different level of imagery, same shit. Instead of Angus we have Francis.
LATE JULY, 2012
My six-year-old son lazes in the crook of my arm on a Saturday. I wonder if he, too, would like to buy the world a Coke, though I can’t help think about high fructose corn syrup and corporate bottom lines, what’s happened to Coca-Cola and dreams and lazy Saturdays and TV since I was a kid. I wonder what my son’s unspokens amount to, if his mind is lonely and beguiled in fits and starts, beyond words, and if he’ll have trouble telling it straight, for once.
Will he have the inkling to shoot rainbow geysers across the heavens with his words, his music, his spirit? And will he wake at forty with a bone-dry brain, and a junk-drawer full of fractured phantom-rainbow grease stains etched in the surface tension of a forgotten puddle?
And yet, I can’t help but feel hopeful, if only for this moment, for both us. I have stared directly into The Sun Also Rises (which it does), honoring a 25-year pledge. I managed to write about unrequited love, elevating it beyond Angus and his vomit. My unfinished opening paragraph about Carl Lewis in 1996 sprints to its finish line at this moment, here in 2012.
It was never, as it turns out, destined to be unfinished, although I couldn’t have predicted this ending back when I stuck it into a junk drawer and gave up. Just as I couldn’t have predicted how M.’s lessons would keep on teaching for 25 years…and might go on teaching for another 25, in ways I can’t predict. O, Life is wondrous and full of mystery.
Even if my children, and their children, turn out like me, we’ll all be fine. There’s so much MORE to experience. I WILL read the best books before the eyes go. I WILL someday tell it straight, for once.
Isn’t it pretty to think so?
R.A. Lubowitz lives in Chicago. His work has appeared in Squalorly, The Dream People, Opium, Poor Mojo’s and more.